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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

As Youths Are Bombarded With Ads, a Pro-Family Group Counterattacks

If President Bush truly wants to invigorate efforts to strengthen kids' character, he can't duck this issue just because it's ideologically inconvenient.

April 30, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday

It's a troubling sign when kids know more about Busch than Bush.

An important new study released this month by the National Institute on Media and the Family found that an incredible 99% of students in grades 7 through 12 can identify Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser as a brand of beer--and 44% of them drink it. By comparison, a national survey at the height of last year's campaign found that only about two-thirds of older kids could name George W. Bush as the GOP presidential candidate.

And it's not just Bud, with its wiseacre lizards and its hip twenty-somethings wondering "whassup?" that's penetrated the schoolyard. The National Institute study, which surveyed 1,500 students from schools in the Midwest and the East, found that 90% or more could identify Miller Genuine Draft and Coors. That was significantly more students than could identify the purpose of the Bill of Rights in a national test a few years back.

The commercialization of childhood continues unrestrained. By one authoritative estimate, marketers now spend $5 billion a year directly targeting children, and kids now see an estimated 20,000 commercials a year.

In that flood, even products that aren't directly aimed at children can still inundate them. Douglas Gentile, research director of the National Institute, says there's no evidence that beer manufacturers are intentionally trying to reach kids with their massive advertising campaigns. "But whether or not they are targeting the kids," he says, "they are hitting the kids." And research, he notes, suggests that "the more kids are exposed to such advertising, the greater their intention to drink and the more positive their feelings about drinking."

Many other industries, of course, are very much trying to reach kids. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission released a follow-up to its groundbreaking report last fall on the marketing of violent entertainment toward kids. The new analysis found that the movie and video game industries had generally improved their practices.

It also found that the recording industry had displayed almost total disdain for public concerns about the marketing of sexually explicit and violent recordings toward underage kids. Among other things, the FTC reported that record companies continued to advertise explicit recordings on television shows with a large share of underage viewers; the ads almost never acknowledged that the recordings contained a parental advisory warning. In effect, the industry is continuing to inspire demand among kids without warning parents that the disc their 10-year-old suddenly had to have might not be something the child should be exposed to.

This manufacture of demand has understandably drawn the most critical attention when it is applied to products clearly inappropriate for young children--from tobacco to explicit recordings and R-rated movies. But the far broader phenomenon of treating even very young children as a consumer market to be manipulated deserves more focus as well. None too soon, it's coming.

Later this week, the Institute for American Values, a centrist think tank that focuses on family concerns, is issuing a mothers' manifesto urging a national effort to roll back Madison Avenue's invasion of the schoolyard and the nursery.

Signed by a long list of prominent women, the statement says they understand that the threat to families doesn't only come from the most obviously objectionable marketing schemes--such as Bud's talking lizards. The larger question is the competition parents face in shaping their children's values from a marketing culture that relentlessly tells kids they can find happiness only from a new pair of Nikes or Gap cargo pants. Struggling to resist that message, parents often feel like Linda Hamilton trying to outlast the Terminator: Eventually you'll have to sleep, but it never does.

"If our children are being steeped in a value system that says 'me first,' instant gratification, self-indulgence and materialism, we don't think that's good for society," says Enola Aird, a mother of two teens who wrote the paper.

Most of the recommendations in this upcoming "Mothers' Statement to Advertisers" urge private actions. The paper forthrightly says that parents must "reassert" their own commitment to teaching values to their kids and grow less reliant on television as a baby-sitter. It also proposes a voluntary six-point "mothers' code for advertisers," including a pledge to bar advertising and market research in schools.

But both the mothers' statement and the National Institute beer advertising study make sensible recommendations for public policies to combat the problem. These divide into two categories.

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